s120e00 Somerton Park 27/2/00 Sunday 8

"Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit" 2 Cor 3.5,6

It is an unfortunate fact that none of us came with instruction manuals, but the reality is, I suppose, few parents would read them even if we did come so equipped. One of the many computer shorthand acronyms is RTFM, which, loosely translated is "why don't you read the manual first before asking me".

Few of us feel especially competent when faced with life. Some manage to put on a very brave face. One of my favourite singers is "Cher" and one of her greatest hits, the video clip of which has her wearing a skimpy thing on board a US naval ship, is titled "If I could turn back time ..." - a powerful lament to a lost love. The reality is that we all learn mostly by our mistakes.

I guess I began to loose some of my shyness when I started to realise that everyone else was as shy as me and they had only perfected ways to hide the fact from everyone else - they looked competent. "The best form of defence is attack".

One of the ways of hiding our shyness is to become proficient in a particular field. So people become experts in their job, experts in a particular sport, experts in a particular hobby or whatever. It gives us something to talk about. We feel competent in our particular field. And there is nothing wrong with this at all. I do it, we all do it.

We can also become an expert in religious matters, able to quote the bible or orthodox teaching or whatever. But the competence of the new covenant is, we are told, "not of letter" - so if we are quoting something, from whatever source, it is not what we are talking about.

Our competence comes from God, and so we are talking about unconditional forgiveness and unconditional grace - or to be more accurate the free but conditional forgiveness and grace - conditional only that it is shared in like manner with others - unconditionally.

It is interesting to me that when Jesus called Levi, we assume that Jesus was calling him to follow him to Jerusalem, to join a throng to march on the Holy City to overthrow the authorities. Or we assume Jesus was calling Levi to a spiritual journey - to become something that he was not already. However the first place that Jesus leads Levi, is to Levi's own home, to dine with he and his friends. Levi was led by Jesus, to accept himself as he really was, in the circumstances of his life, amongst his friends and business associates, who, with him, were the outcasts of society. Our following of Jesus too will lead us to a realisation of Jesus' free but conditional acceptance for us as we are - conditional only so long as we, in turn, do not make conditions on others.

It is precisely this free but conditional acceptance which the scribes of the Pharisees questioned. Again Jesus motivation and actions were not questioned by those for whom it seems faith and religion are irrelevant - this free but conditional acceptance was questioned by the religious authorities. The religious authorities wanted to perpetuate the fantasy that God loved them more than others for all their religious exercises, they wanted to look down on others who couldn't live up to their standards, and they wanted to continue to demand these of others regardless of their personal circumstances.

This is a powerless religion, for one person cannot have authority or power over anyone else.

Ordinary people noticed that Jesus didn't expect his disciples to fast, like the Pharisees asked their disciples to fast, and like John the Baptist asked his disciples to fast. So if it wasn't fasting, what did Jesus want? Ordinary people wanted to know whether they too would have things expected of themselves. They wanted to know how they would have to live up to Jesus' expectations. But Jesus didn't ask anyone to do things for him. The only thing Jesus asked his disciples to do was to accept OTHERS as they had been accepted. No, of course, it was more than this, he demanded that they do this.

And this is totally new, this faith that is centred, not on the persona of the leader or the solidarity of the disciples, but on the needs of those outside.

Jesus told the rich young ruler to give his wealth, not to him as any good religious leader might well do to further the cause, but to give his wealth to the poor.

The old cloak and the old wineskins are those religions where demands are made on others, where others are expected to live up to this or that religious expectation, rather than accept those around them for what they can contribute. The old cloak and the old wineskin is where the acceptance of another is not free, and as a consequence similar demands can be made on others. And of course I hardly exempt Christianity from the possibility of becoming like an old cloak and old wineskin.

While I was on holidays, I went, as is my wont, to worship in another parish, and as it happened, I met someone I knew from a previous parish of mine. The particular person, a delightful and conscientious person was quick to lament that her husband still had not accepted Christianity. And my first thought was to be sad that her experience of the faith had brought her such a trial in life, leaving her to feel such a failure, and to be fearful of the eternal salvation of her beloved. What a lifetime of effort wasted, when our faith tells us that Jesus loves her husband as much as anyone else, and that we are called to accept others as they are. I wonder if anyone in the Church will ever take some responsibility for this waste of life and happiness?

One of the primary motivations for me in preaching this gospel of free but conditional acceptance, is not trying to change those who don't care about others, but to give some comfort to those who do - to give them some relief from have trying to change others when we can only accept.

Obviously all of us from time to time will undertake for ourselves, various disciplines of a spiritual nature. During Lent we may give up some little treat. We may make a conscious effort to pray at a set time or read the Bible or some edifying author. And these are good and healthy things to do. But we take them on ourselves - they are not imposed on us by others or by God. God does not accept us more because we do them, nor accept us less if we don't. For many of us the sheer struggle to "make ends meet" may well be as much as we can do.

We are coming up to Lent in ten days time. I will be having the usual extra half - hour service on Wednesday nights at 6pm for those who may care to come. I hope that you will enjoy that time if you do choose to come. Give up chocolates if you like, but I thought perhaps I might suggest some other Lenten exercises which you might not have considered.

Reading C. S. Lewis's "The Chronicles of Narnia" would be a joyous Lenten discipline for me (or would have been had I not just finished reading them again during my holidays :-). Another thought provoking and joyful book might be "Mr God, this is Anna" by Fynn. Or if movies are your scene, I have heard that "Cirque du Soleil" at the Imax theatre is good. More controversially see something expressing a different viewpoint, like the film "Dogma" or "Romance", rather than standing outside and criticising unseen.

Do something for yourself - after all Jesus died and rose again for you as well as for everyone else. Pamper yourself. Those of the female gender used to have "Make-overs" - do they still do them? Undertake some study - like the "A Big Enough Faith" course run by the Diocese, a craft or self help group. Try Yoga or exercise classes. Consider spiritual direction.

Or say to oneself every morning: "God loves me as I am, and I don't have to do anything to prove that to anyone, myself or anyone else. Neither does anyone else have to prove to me or anyone else that God loves him or her.."

The only competence we have, comes from God, and it is the free but conditional forgiveness and free but conditional grace - conditional only that these are shared in like manner with others - unconditionally.


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